In a series of four gorgeous photos, Samantha Sheppard, 21, represented her Panamanian heritage and went viral in the process. Nearly a month ago, the soon-to-be Louisiana State University alum shared her photos – where she wore a purple and gold pollera to match her school’s colors – and said, “First one in my family with a degree. Finally telling my parents that everything they did is paying off.. had to show out for the first gens for my grad shoot. 100% Panameña, living the american dream.” Since then, she’s received nearly 30,000 likes and more than 5,000 retweets, with many complimenting everything from her poses to her dress, and with others feeling represented through her images.
With grad photos being the norm for many college seniors, Samantha wanted to make sure hers stood out. And with Eunice Koomson behind the lens, they did. “I’m super big on individuality, so for my grad photos, I really didn’t want to do anything basic, like the champagne and glitter,” she told Remezcla via a message. “And I’m the first in my fam to get a degree, so I had to rep my culture. I always tell everyone that my degree isn’t just for me, but my whole family back home, so it was just a full circle.”
To pull off such an authentic look, Samantha – who identifies as bi-racial and Afro-Latinx – turned to her contacts in Panama to get the dress custom made. A woman in Panama spent three months making the pollera. Samantha was able to pick every detail of the look – the colors, the fabric, the design, and more. In the end, her family was impressed.
“My family was sooooo happy that I decided to do this, and it was such a surprise, too,” she said. “My mom definitely teared up and they were so amazed at how beautiful I looked because it was the first time I was in a pollera as a grown woman. You usually have two, one when you’re a young lady and one when you’re a woman). My family is so proud to have a woman who’s never forgotten or tried to hide her roots.”
She got similar comments from others, many of whom are in similar positions as she is. As the first one in her family to go to college, she had to figure things out on her own. And as she was sometimes the only African-American or Latina student in her classes, it could have been an isolating experience, but she found a community, without ever losing sight of who she is.
“Never forget your roots and never forget where you came from because it’s who [made] you, you,” she said. “Individuality is beautiful even if it isn’t the norm. Despite all the odds, I hope that someone sees my grad photos, and I hope you know I was a first-gen student with all the odds against me, and I made it out of one of the best universities on time and with a job, and my education won’t stop here.”